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Monday, July 24, 2017

Abandoned St. Louis Schools Are Focus of New Photo Exhibit

Posted By on Mon, Jul 24, 2017 at 6:41 AM

click to enlarge "My Old School" was taken by the exhibit curator Jane Linders at Cleveland High School, which closed in 2006. - PHOTO BY JANE LINDERS
  • Photo by Jane Linders
  • "My Old School" was taken by the exhibit curator Jane Linders at Cleveland High School, which closed in 2006.
In the spring of 2015, the St. Louis Public School District launched open houses for approximately 30 abandoned and destroyed-beyond-repair schools, in the hopes that potential buyers would be interested in repurposing the buildings. Though some of the schools have since been bought and redeveloped, the tours have an unexpected outcome: a new gallery show opening in Brentwood.

“Empty Halls, Silent Classrooms,” which will open at the ReFind Room (2525 South Brentwood Boulevard, Brentwood) August 11, has been curated by Jane Linders. Herself a photographer, Linders had heard about the open houses and decided to check them out in person.

See also: Chilling Photos From Inside St. Louis’ Abandoned Schools

“I’ve always liked and been interested in the stillness of abandoned places and things that are run down,” Linders says. “I find them compelling, beautiful and unexpected. When these schools opened up to tour, it was a natural fit for me because I like to photograph decay anyway. So this is a little dream come true for me.”

The schools, which have been out of service since around the mid-2000s, have been looted and vandalized. In many cases, thieves removed the copper wiring of the buildings, leading to leakage and further damage. The biggest flaw with them, according to St. Louis Public Schools’ Director of Real Estate Walker Gaffney, is that they were not properly secured. Gaffney says that in the past, closing a school was as simple as “locking it up and walking away.” This caused long-term damage with the pipes, heating and cooling systems and electricity.

Upon wandering through school after school in 2015, Linders started noticing familiar faces. Apparently, other photographers were also interested in these neglected century-old schools. Through word of mouth, social media, and a photo assignment/sharing site called Photo Flood St. Louis, an ad hoc group of photographers started connecting of their interest in capturing the schools’ “beautiful chaos.”

Though the purpose of the open houses was obviously not to inspire local photographers, the real estate agents had no problem with the influx of artists. The artists added "a recurring cast of friendly faces to the tours," Gaffney says.

Linders agrees. “In some roundabout way," she says, "I think we helped." By bringing artistry to the cracked walls, peeled paint and broken glass, Linders and the other photographers gave these run-down schools a new image.

“I think that's the overall message, that something desolate can be beautiful,” Linders says. “Amidst all the chaos and all the destruction you see, it almost feels like you're in nature or seeing a beautiful scene.”

After the season of open houses, however, the photographers packed up their lenses and tripods and left the schools behind. That is, until this May, when several incidents inspired Linders to revisit her photos.

First, Linders took a tour of Soulard's Lafayette School led by the Landmarks Association of St. Louis. The building, originally designed by William Ittner nearly a century ago and abandoned since 2004, had been in shambles when Linders photographed it two years prior. Now, it has been transformed into top-notch, market-rate apartments.

The following weekend Linders ran into a former co-worker from Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, where she used to work as a lab technician.

“We both found our jobs profoundly boring and soul-sucking and used to talk incessantly about what we both really wanted to do,” Linders says.

After her co-worker fulfilled his dream of opening a gallery, Linders knew it was time to get working on her own.

“I pitched him the idea of exhibiting the collection of decayed school photos and he loved the idea,” Linders says. “It was fate.”

Over the next few months, Linders contacted some of the other photographers she had seen on the school tours. Now, she’s collected for-sale pieces from eight artists. She hopes to add even more before the opening reception August 11.

Linders purposefully timed the exhibit with back-to-school season, and she chose the ReFind Room, a store that collects and resells high-quality furniture, because it echoes the theme of her exhibit.

“I liked this idea of things getting a new life,” Linders says. “While these schools are not purposeful for being schools anymore, that doesn’t mean they should be knocked down. Just like grandma’s couch – just because I don’t need it anymore, someone else will love it.” So far, ten properties have been bought to be repurposed as apartments, community centers, warehouses and affordable houses.

click to enlarge "The Boardroom," was taken at Simmons school, which was built in 1899 and closed in 2009. It is part of the new photo exhibit, "Empty Halls, Silent Classrooms," which will open in Brentwood August 11. - PHOTO BY V. ELLY SMITH
  • Photo by V. Elly Smith
  • "The Boardroom," was taken at Simmons school, which was built in 1899 and closed in 2009. It is part of the new photo exhibit, "Empty Halls, Silent Classrooms," which will open in Brentwood August 11.

However, new legislation could threaten the buildings' continued redevelopment. Governor Greitens' newly commissioned Governor's Committee on Simple, Fair and Low Taxes may influence the selling of the properties, according to Gaffney, since Greitens is considering rolling back historic preservation tax credits.

"The rehabilitations are more expensive per square foot than new construction and rely on historic preservation tax credits to be economically feasible," Gaffney says. "Governor Greitens has created a commission that is recommending drastic changes to the Missouri preservation credit that, if enacted, will be very destabilizing to the historic (including schools) repurposing community."

Linders also expressed apprehension about the state of the buildings and their futures. Though Linders' original inspiration was a love of photographing decay, the finished exhibit is about much more.

“What starts out as one thing – ‘Oh, I just want to take pretty pictures’ – ends up raising questions,” Linders says. “The city of St. Louis was once a thriving community full of kids and schools. You start wondering: Where did all the teachers go? Where are all the children? What are we doing to our cities?”

The show runs through September 8.

See also: Chilling Photos From Inside St. Louis’ Abandoned Schools

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